As befits her status as her country's most famous racehorse, Vodka's every move is accompanied by the flare of flashbulbs belonging to an excited posse of Japanese media, even in Dubai. News that the six-time Group One-winning mare, who gets her first start at Meydan Racecourse tonight, is to retire to Ireland after her tilt at the US $10million (Dh36.7m) Dubai World Cup, has made Vodka lava-hot property.
Which explains why a small crowd was up before sunrise yesterday to see her cruise around the Tapeta ahead of her Al Maktoum Challenge Round III prep race. As if aware of the PR opportunity, the dark bay put on a bit of a show, floating around the track in a notably more effortless fashion than on her previous workouts. Vodka, who tonight faces off against the likes of the 2009 World Cup runner-up, Gloria de Campeao, and Godolphin's French import, Cavalryman, who finished two lengths off the mighty Sea The Stars when third in the Prix de L'Arc de Triomphe, deserves the attention.
Her earnings stand at $13,147,826, which makes the rangy six-year-old the second highest-grossing thoroughbred in the all-time money stakes and the leading female. In 2007 Vodka became the first filly in 64 years to win the Japanese Derby, and last year was the first Japanese-bred mare to win the Japan Cup. If she is successful in the World Cup, then Vodka will overtake TM Opera O, the current money king who raced in Japan from 1998 to 2001 and earned $16,200,337, sealing her place in history.
"We are aware there is a lot of pressure on us," says Vodka's trainer, Katsuhiko Sumii, with a glance at the assembled Japanese media at the Tapeta track yesterday morning. "She is the most famous horse in Japan and everyone is expecting a lot from her." Vodka's successes are numerous, but her form on three previous starts in Dubai has not lived up to her legend. She was fourth to Herman Brown's Jay Peg in the 2008 Dubai Duty Free and disappointing in the Jebel Hatta in 2009 when two lengths off Balius.
She then failed to make her mark in that year's Duty Free, coming home nine lengths behind Gladiatorus in seventh. She did, however, go on to claim three Group Ones in Japan after that. The switch from turf to Tapeta represents a change, but Keita Tanaka, who has been overseeing Vodka's progress in the UAE, explained that she handles the surface well. "It's new for her but she seems to like it," he says. "When we came in 2008 she didn't travel well, lost weight and was a little bit over the top. The next year we had her too relaxed and perhaps not fit enough."
This year, Vodka arrived in Dubai after having three workouts in Japan, which may explain why she has had three pieces of work on Tapeta without been pushed too hard. "This time she is fitter, stronger and in a better place mentally," adds Tanaka. "We learned from the last two visits. We know there is a lot at stake here, but we are focusing on our horse." Sumii acknowledges Vodka will face stiff competition in tonight's race. "There are lots of nice horses in that field," he says. "But this is just a prep race for Vodka, not the real thing. There is a lot of interest because it is her first start on the new surface. "We already have pressure on us now, but if she wins the Al Maktoum Challenge then we will understand what pressure is," he adds with a rueful smile. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org